Having made a few subpar thrillers (Sleeping With the Enemy, The Forgotten), Joseph Ruben turns to romantic drama with the unabashedly old-fashioned The Ottoman Lieutenant, which sets a young American nurse at the center of a love triangle amid the chaos of war. The by-the-numbers story never achieves its aimed-for grandeur or intensity, and the striking Turkish locations prove far more interesting than the characters.
Most of the action revolves around an American mission hospital in the Anatolian village of Van, where 23-year-old Lillie (Icelandic actress Hera Hilmar) works beside a devoted young doctor, Jude Gresham (Josh Hartnett). It was his fundraising pitch back in the Philadelphia Main Line that inspired her to take her nursing skills where they’re desperately needed. With an inheritance and an unwieldy assortment of supplies, she heads to Europe in 1914, arriving as the region is on the brink of war.
In Istanbul she promptly meets Ismail Veli (Michiel Huisman), an officer with the Ottoman Imperial Army who volunteers as an impromptu tour guide. But he isn’t happy when he’s called upon to provide a military escort for Lillie to Eastern Anatolia. A man of action, he’s no more delighted by the assignment his uncle and commander (Selcuk Yontem) attaches to the excursion, asking him to suss out the allegiances of the Christian Armenians in the remote region — are they with the Turks or the invading Russians? More to the movie’s point, can Lillie and Ismail find love while Jude fulminates jealously?
Lillie’s convention-defying ardor theoretically makes her fascinating; back in Philly, she scandalized the establishment by bringing a black patient into a “white” hospital, and she’s withstood the pressure of her parents (Paul Barrett and Jessica Turner) to marry already and settle down. Yet while Hilmar strikes notes of adventurousness and independence, the requisite inner fire never ignites, whether in Lillie’s romance with Ismail or the supposedly soul-healing effect she has on the hospital’s bitter, ether-addicted founder, Woodruff (Ben Kingsley, rather pointedly trying to inject some life into the banal).
Like all the film’s characters, Lillie remains two-dimensional, hampered by the blandness and schmaltz of the screenplay by Jeff Stockwell (The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys), however well-meaning its message of religious tolerance. In stock roles (dashing hero and figure of rectitude), Huisman and Hartnett are required to fly into fisticuffs over Lillie and her “honor,” Jude masking his sexual rivalry in righteous indignation. Yet whatever riskiness a romance between a Christian American and a Muslim Turk is meant to entail, it evaporates in romance-novel dreaminess.
Although Ruben stages action sequences, graphic medical procedures and more intimate exchanges competently, there’s little sense of true danger. Newsreel footage and Lillie’s factoid-studded voiceover narration don’t quite bring World War I to full-blooded life. But the director and DP Daniel Aranyo, shooting in the Cappadocia area of Central Anatolia (as well as in Prague studios), find what’s crucially missing from the drama — namely, emotion and intrigue — in the strange beauty of the landscape, with its buildings carved into volcanic rock.
Production companies: Y Production, Eastern Sunrise Films
Cast: Michiel Huisman, Hera Hilmar, Josh Hartnett, Ben Kingsley, Haluk Bilginer, Afif Ben Badra, Paul Barrett, Jessica Turner, Selcuk Yontem
Director: Joseph Ruben
Screenwriter: Jeff Stockwell
Producers: Stephen Joel Brown, Alinur Velidedeoglu, Gunes Celiksan, Merve Zorlu, Yusuf Esenkal, Serdar Ogretici
Executive producers: Ron Bareham, William Stuart, Anthony J. Lynn, Raif Inan
Director of photography: Daniel Aranyo
Production designer: Luca Tranchino
Costume designer: Joanna Eatwell
Editors: Nick Moore, Dennis Virkler
Composer: Geoff Zanelli
Casting: Francine Maisler, Melissa Kostenbauder
Rated R, 110 minutes